Fearing Fire, Mountain Residents Try Desperately to Get Rid of Dead Trees
Loggers pull on a tagline to bring down a dead Ponderosa pine tree in Gerd Stoeker's backyard. (Alice Daniel/KQED)
Logger Hudson Fisk is on the ground looking up at a dead Ponderosa pine he and his team are about to fell. At the top, a climber cuts off the last of the limbs with a chainsaw. He ties a rope or tagline around the trunk, descends the tree by a third, and saws a notch. Then he starts cutting off the first section.
Fisk and three other men pull on the other end of the tagline.
“Keep cutting!” someone yells to the climber. “Keep cutting until it falls off that tree!”
In a matter of seconds, the first section of the tree is down. Boom!
Hudson Fisk’s Tree and Excavating Service is under a lot of pressure these days. A deadly mix of drought and beetle infestation has killed millions of Ponderosa pines in the southern Sierra Nevada. And mountain residents are practically begging for Fisk’s help.
“We work as fast as we can, but it’s overwhelming right now,” Fisk says. He’s getting 10 to 15 calls daily from homeowners in the foothills anxious to get rid of dead trees like the one he just felled for Gerd Stoecker.
Stoecker's land has "suffered a pretty major infestation of pine beetles,” Fisk says.
Stoecker agrees. “It’s depressing,” he says. “The trees make up the property. That’s why we bought it.”
Stoecker owns about 40 acres, and in the next few days he’ll have 11 dead trees removed near his house. It’s costing him plenty and he’s not even making money on the wood because sawmills are flooded with fire salvage.
He says many homeowners can’t afford to have their trees removed and are just crossing their fingers that nothing bad happens. “Hopefully nothing falls on the house or the roof or somebody gets hurts,” Stoecker says.
Or there’s a wildfire.
“These go up like torches, you know, if there would be a fire,” he adds. “You’re removing fuel, basically.”
And because the trees are dead, they burn violently, especially if the fire gets up in the canopy, says Fisk, who is also a firefighter.
“If it gets hot again like it was a few weeks ago, it could be a catastrophic year,” he adds. “It could really turn bad.”
It’s why Len Nielson, a unit forester for MMU Cal Fire, has spent countless days advising homeowners on tree removal. On this Friday, it’s his day off but he’s still taking the time to drop off forestry permits to Lee Hohweiler, who needs them to have logs removed from his 25-acre property. He has already felled 24 dead trees.
“So I’m gonna give you these,” says Nielson, handing him the permits. The key to removing wood, he adds, is hiring a licensed timber operator.
“Fisk could do these, right?” asks Hohweiler.
“Correct,” Nielson says. “He absolutely turns these in to me. I have probably ten of these right now on my desk from Hudson.”
Nielson says Mariposa County alone has lost 30 to 40 percent of its Ponderosa pines. That number will likely double by next year.
“So let’s look at some of your trees,” Nielson says. “Some of these trees are already showing signs of mortality that are still green.”
The signs of mortality come from bark beetles that have drilled into the tree and girdled it. In a non-drought year, the trees would be more resilient. Nielson points to a glob of sap on the tree. It’s the size of a fingertip and it’s called a pitch pocket.
"The bug drills into the tree,” Nielson says. “The tree actually produces a little extra sap and pitch, and captures that bug and pushes it back out the hole that it made.”
But the drought has stressed the trees enough that they can’t fight off the epidemic numbers of bark beetles. In just one year, one mating pair of beetles can reproduce 12 million offspring.
“How come I’ve never seen any of the beetles?” Hohweiler asks.
“Because the beetles are about the size of a grain of rice,” Nielson says. He pops some of the bark off the tree in hopes of finding one. “These beetles have already left the building,” he says, when he doesn’t see any.
“Where did they go?” asks Hohweiler.
“They’re airborne and they’ve gone to the tree next door.”
And to the tree after that, and the tree after that, says Nielson. In fact, there’s really nothing that can stop an outbreak like this.
Nielson points to some track marks or egg galleries on a huge tree trunk.
“It looks like someone took a bowl of spaghetti and threw it on the tree and peeled it off and left those marks,” he says.
It’s not just wildfires that homeowners need to worry about, says Nielson. These trees will also suffer wind breakage from big storms and fall on roads and trails.
“Remember a few years ago when we had that big freak snowstorm?” he asks Hohweiler.
“Oh yeah! I’d stand out here and listen to the trees breaking.”
“Exactly” says Nielson. “And those were green healthy trees.”
Hohweiler says he’s removing the trees because he wants to be a good steward of the land. But watching the pines die is breaking his heart. “It’s pretty emotional,” he says.
Some of the trees he felled were 150 years old. Hohweiler knows new ones will grow, but he’s 67 -- and it takes a long time for a tree to get big.
“I’m never gonna see them again,” he says.
Hohweiler turns to Nielson’s 16-year-old daughter, who’s been accompanying her father today.